Charles Kennedy, the perils of Coalition Government – Dutch Auctions and the Flying Dutchman: 2010 article reproduced by the Daily Telegraph – and a reflection for Tim Farron.
Charles Kennedy death has reminded people of his capability and considerable political acumen. We knew each other for over thirty years – and during my time as Liberal Chief Whip I came to admire Charles’ judgement and his humanity. When I invited him to Liverpool to deliver a Roscoe Lecture, just a year ago, we discussed why we both believed the decision of the Liberal Democrats to enter a coalition Government with the Conservatives had been such an enormous error – and why, having entered the coalition, many policies were being promoted with which we were both in profound disagreement. (Charles Kennedy’s Roscoe Lecture in Liverpool on Scottish Independence : https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/…/roscoe-lecture-ser…/audio-downloads).
When the Coalition was formed in 2010 I warned the Lib Dems that the story of the Liberal Party – of which I had been a member since the age of 17 – contained many lessons about the dangers of entering a coalition and argued that supporting a minority government on the basis of “supply and confidence” (voting for Bills and policies on their merits without bring down the Government) but staying out of a coalition would be better for them and for the country.
Before the recent 2015 election I said that the election would reduce their House of Commons representation to around the 11 MPs that the Liberal Party had when I entered the Commons in 1979. The result proved to be even worse than that.
Tim Farron will have his work cut out but should carefully study what the Liberal Party did from 1979 until 1987 to create the formidable Party which Charles Kennedy went on to lead.
Subject: 2010 article reproduced by the Daily Telegraph on the perils of Coalition for the Lib Dems
Former Liberal Chief Whip: coalition will lead to Lib Dem ‘rupture and resignations’
By Damian Thompson Politics
26 Comments Comment on this article
Lord (David) Alton of Liverpool, former Liberal Chief Whip and my favourite politician by a mile, has just posted this article on his Facebook page, of all places. It’s a warning to Nick Clegg that his party didn’t enjoy much popular support, needs to show humility, and can expect dissent and resignations from Tory-hating supporters. The Lib Dem leader won’t want to hear this, but he really ought to read Alton’s piece. Even though it’s much longer than the average blog post, I reckon it’s worth carrying in full:
Although I have sat for the past 13 years as an Independent Crossbencher, I was once Liberal Chief Whip in the Commons and, in February 1974, as a 23-year-old, contested my first General Election. It was the last contest which led to a hung Parliament. I have several other reasons for following the unfolding events at Westminster with interest.
As a teenage Liberal activist I became convinced of the merits of the single transferable vote; as a City Councillor, during my time as Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council, I had to make a minority administration function; during 18 years as an MP for a Liverpool constituency I came to value the constituency link between an MP and their constituents; and in the Lords opposed the decision of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to introduce the closed party list system for European elections.
I have always seen merit in trying to find common ground where possible, and served as an MP during the period of the Liberal-SDP Alliance (which polled 25% in the 1983 general Election), but strongly opposed David Steel’s decision to take the Liberal Party into the Lib-Lab Pact of March 1977 – July 1978 – which seemed to be based on political calculation rather than principle. It is still difficult to recall anything that it actually achieved other than putting off the date of a General Election.
What bearing does any of this have on the formation, today, of a coalition government in Britain?
First, the unedifying procrastination of the past few days has risked discrediting the concept of power-sharing. The haggling vividly underlines the importance of going into an election with a clear idea of who will work with whom and on what basis. Much of the electorate who took part in last week’s election will have been left with a bad taste in their mouths – and whatever the merits of today’s agreement it will not have been what millions of people thought that they were voting for last week.
In that election David Cameron’s Conservative Party won the largest share of the vote; he won the largest number of seats; and won many of the arguments. Throughout, he argued for a majoritarian outcome. So did Gordon Brown. By contrast, Nick Clegg argued for a hung parliament and inevitably led the electorate on a merry dance.
It is absolutely clear that morally and constitutionally David Cameron had the right to form a Government and despite the massive economic problems facing Britain he is right to want to grapple with them. Listening to politicians saying they would rather leave it to someone else rather than risk being blamed or tarnished for taking tough decisions reveals quite a lot about their reasons for being in political life. David Cameron may fail – I hope he doesn’t – but at least he has the political courage to try.
Nick Clegg, however, has conveyed the impression or wanting to run with the hares and the hounds – and this has left many voters confused. He has some way to go to convince that the Lib-Con deal is anything but a marriage of convenience.
Clegg is a fluent Dutch speaker and has Dutch antecedents. He will be familiar with the concept of a Dutch Auction, named after its use in the seventeenth-century Dutch Tulip Craze. The Dutch Auction is often regarded as the first speculative bubble, with tulips selling at ten times the annual income of a Dutch craftsman – and is a phrase which describes a rather tacky process in which an asset price deviates significantly from intrinsic value. In a Dutch Auction the auctioneer begins with a high asking price until one of the participants is willing to accept the auctioneer’s price – or a predetermined reserve price – that is, the minimum price acceptable to the salesman – has been reached.
When you have just lost seats and many of your policies enjoy no popular mandate – from support to the Euro to the illiberal imposition of party policy on what were conscience questions, such as abortion – you should show a modicum of humility. Dutch Auctions and double-dealing are a rum way to run a country.
The former Home Secretary, and Clegg’s fellow Sheffield MP, David Blunkett, described the process rather less prosaically, by liking the Liberal Democrats to harlots selling themselves to the highest bidder.
Voters who voted Lib Dem to keep the Conservatives out will feel betrayed as will those who believed their votes would lead to the Lib-Lab Progressive Politics favoured by The Guardian and The Independent leader writers. Failure during the election campaign to lay before the electorate what would be the terms of a Liberal-Conservative or Lib-Lab Coalition left the electorate voting for a question mark. Nick Clegg’s lack of clarity during the campaign also led to a leeching away of votes and has led to a process which appears to have put party advantage to the fore.
Philosophically and ideologically the Lib Dems – since their merger with former Labour Party members – have largely abandoned classical Liberalism and opted for a social democratic paradigm of society. Many have hankered after a Lib-Lab realignment; and, in their London salons have plotted the creation of a voting system – based on the alternative vote (not single transferable votes) which would cast such realignment into stone. Indeed, some have spent their whole political lives devoted to such a project.
The prospect of a Liberal-Conservative axis genuinely never occurred to most of them, which is why it will lead to internal dissent, rupture and resignations. David Cameron has described himself as “a liberal Conservative” and those of us who have always had some sympathy with the one-nation tradition of Conservatism have warmed to his approach – but my erstwhile colleagues in the Liberal Democrats have not been among those to share that enthusiasm.
If the two parties are philosophically unlikely stable mates, the precedents do not auger particularly well either.
In the 1920s disagreements over coalition parties catastrophically ruptured the old Liberal Party.
I remember veterans of those years describing to me how coalition Ministers were shouted down at the party’s National Executive Committee – accused of being traitors. Separate parties and organisations were established. And by the 1930s there were Samuelite Liberals (supporters of Herbert Samuel and representing Asquith’s political heirs), Independent Liberals (mainly Lloyd George’s relatives) and Simonites – National Liberals, supporters of Sir John Simon who worked in coalitions with Ramsay Macdonald’s National Government and the Conservatives, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer – and close ally of the author of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain. The National Liberals were formally absorbed into the Conservative Party in 1968 but National Liberals continued to sit in the Commons, taking the Conservative whip, until 1983. Michael Heseltine’s first electoral contest was under the Conservative and National Liberal label.
In 1931 – after 25 years as a Liberal MP – Sir John Simon had refused to support Lloyd George’s Lib-Lab pact and crossed the floor to form the National Liberals. Commenting on Simon’s memoirs (Retrospect, published in 1952) Roy Jenkins described them as “barren and bloodless” and said they “were of interest primarily because they exposed his fatal capacity to turn even his substantial if partial triumphs into antic-climatic ashes.” The journalist, George Edinger, said of Simon, “Often he would touch with his finger-tips the ivory gates and the golden – and he never got inside.” This is not entirely true as he held most high political offices – Home Secretary, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor. But, simply gaining a seat at the Cabinet table does not necessarily imply political success or achievement – especially if your advancement breaks your party.
Jenkins, who also held high political office and broke with his party said that Simon “was often the despair of his officials, went before the Cabinet without knowing his own mind, had a solution imposed upon him by others, and, perhaps not unnaturally in the circumstances, defended it only weakly in public.”
Liberal Democrats now embarking on their new electoral dalliance with the Conservatives need to recall these precedents and recognise that expediency -based on deal making alone – rather than a genuine meeting of minds on political principles – will end in division and tears.
If we are to move to move beyond cynical Dutch Auctions and deal making, and enter an era of co-operative politics there need to be clear statements of principle, policy and electoral intent.
As for electoral reform: In 1968, aged 17, one of my first duties as chairman of my town’s branch of young Liberals was to organise a talk by the indefatigable Miss Enid Lakeman of The Electoral Reform Society. She had been sent by the Liberal Leader, Mr Grimond, to tell us why we should support a change in the voting system to single transferable votes (STV) – a proportional system which gives voters greater choice and, unlike some systems of proportional representation, retains a constituency link (albeit in larger seats).
In the Dutch Auction of the past few days a change in the voting system has been caricatured as a deal breaker. By muddling the genuine arguments which can be made for reform with cynical attempts to cobble together self serving electoral arrangements to sustain the hegemony of particular politicians, there is a grave danger that the case for reform will be lost.
David Cameron’s offer of a referendum should be welcomed – so long as a genuine debate can be held about the respective merits of first-past-the-post (FPTP), alternative votes (AV), list systems, and STV. The referendum should not be a take it or leave it question on alternative votes (which would not provide proportionality).
Single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party-a kind of built-in primary, without the extra expense since each party has more than one candidate, there is wider voter choice and the power to eliminate the least suitable. There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on. Paradoxically, AV has the potential to be even less proportional than first past the post and, obviously, in comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons.
But any change – any move to single transferable votes or alternative votes – would need to command widespread support and should not, under any circumstances – unlike the change to party lists for European elections – be steamrollered through as a last-gasp political fix or as part of a political deal. The once smoke-filled rooms of Westminster – now smoke-free but no less calculating – are not the place in which to agree fundamental constitutional change.
Britain’s democratic deficit is about a lot more than the voting system. Parliament is widely held in contempt and our elitist political culture increasingly revolves around party preferment rather than voter engagement and an over-extended belief in campaigning by electronic remote control, rather than by intimate and participatory community politics. This has militated against voter engagement and confidence in our democratic institutions.
Failure to create national consensus about political change could leave us with a worse system than the one we have at present.
So, as David Cameron said on entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, this is not going to be an easy time. Coalitions are fraught with political challenge and danger, and, as Nick Clegg and his colleagues are about to discover, a first-past-the-system is not designed to facilitate or assist the working of coalitions. Will he be able to safely steer his ship to the safer waters of a reformed voting system or be condemned, like the captain of the phantom ship, The Flying Dutchman, to sail a ship that can thereafter never go home – a fate which occurred after playing Dice for his own soul with the Devil? It’s a curse which Nick Clegg would do well to avoid – Published May 2010